A non-cruiser's guide to the must-do destinations
The Mediterranean has it all – iconic cities, chic towns, beaches, history and culture. You can cruise around Italy, through the Greek islands, or along the French and Italian Rivieras. There are week-long cruises around the Western Med and Aegean, and longer voyages that take in such prized cities as Florence, Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Athens and Istanbul.
And then there is the weather – very hot in July and August, pleasantly warm in early spring and late autumn. A few lines even have winter cruises; a bit chilly, but you can see places like Pompeii without the crowds. Every cruise line you can think of, with ships big and small, operates in the Med in summer. You can cruise there from the UK (no flights but allow a minimum of two weeks) or fly direct to the sun.
These Atlantic isles are popular for land-based holidays, but why only visit one when you can island-hop around them on a cruise, ticking off fab beaches and fun waterparks, and go camel riding or dolphin watching on the way? Fred. Olsen and Thomson Cruises have ships in Tenerife from December to April, offering a week or two of winter sun. P&O Cruises, Cunard, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International sail to the islands from the UK in spring, autumn and winter, in which case allow 11 to 14 nights. Tenerife is the top stop, with other favourites including Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, La Palma and Lanzarote, where there are trips to the Timanfaya ('Fire Mountain') National Park, where geysers spurt and bracken bursts into flames without a match. Most itineraries also include Agadir in Morocco and Funchal in Madeira.
St Petersburg, with its ornate palaces, priceless artworks and world-class ballet, is the jewel in the Baltic's crown – so packed with sights that ships stay two or three days so you can see as much as possible. But there's more to a cruise here than the former Russian capital, with Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn and Helsinki, among other stops, between them offering history, culture, hiking, cycling and high-speed jet-boat rides.
Ships visit between April and October, either sailing from the UK (choices include P&O Cruises, Cunard, Fred. Olsen and Thomson), in which case it's a 2-week cruise, or round trip from Copenhagen (Norwegian and Princess), which means 10 or 12 nights and more ports. The weather can be unpredictable (rather like in the UK), but July and August are the best bets.
Norwegian fjords (main picture)
Until recently just a summer destination, loved for its scenery, the Norwegian fjords are now also a favourite in winter with folk in search of the Northern Lights. It's cold, but with luck you'll be rewarded by nature's own light show. Fred. Olsen and Cruise & Maritime Voyages visit in winter, when you can also go snowmobiling and sledding with huskies. If summer appeals more (go between June and August for the best weather and near 24-hour daylight), the choice of cruise lines is huge, with sailings from the UK and Scandinavia. You can do the fjords in a week, visiting Ålesund (renowned for its art nouveau) and tiny Olden with its huge glacier, but a fortnight will take you into the Arctic Circle, to see the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø or North Cape, in Norway's extreme north.
With its sandy beaches, sunny skies and blue seas, the Caribbean is one of the Brits' favourite cruise haunts. Barbados, Antigua, Dominica, the British Virgin Islands – you can tick them all off, and more, on one cruise, as your floating hotel hops from one island to another. Days are filled with swimming, snorkelling, sailing and sundowners back on board.
Cruise lines too numerous to mention sail the Caribbean, most just in winter, a few all year round, dodging the summer hurricanes (the benefit of having a moving hotel!) and offering great out-of-season value. It's hot all year, but can rain any time. Most lines sail from the US, offering 7-night itineraries that go east or west and can be linked into 2-week voyages, but there are also longer southern Caribbean routes. A few lines base ships in the islands over winter.
Alaska is all about the great outdoors, with nature, wildlife and activity excursions such as bear- or whale-watching safaris, husky sled rides, zip-wiring, helicopter rides and glacier hikes among the fun things you can do. Princess, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean International all operate here, sailing to the 49th state (it is part of the US, remember, but so different from the Lower 48) from Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco. Cruises operate between May and September (which is when you can expect the best weather and which is, coincidentally, the best time to spot whales) and are mainly seven nights, sometimes 10 nights, sailing either one-way to Alaska or round trip, and visiting Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, as well as cruising close to giant glaciers.